Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Activist Clubs Elicit Lackluster Response

<llege students have historically been the agitators and leaders of many progressive movements, from divestment and desegregation to populism and pacifism. This weekend ten Carleton students will be flying to Washington D.C. to partake in a protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline, whose extension seriously threatens the environment and represents further reliance on fossil fuels. This movement is particularly powerful because the only thing that prevented the pipeline from being extended a few years ago was massive civil disobedience. It represents a case where student activism took an uncontested issue and put in on the public bargaining table. It is exciting that 10 Carleton delegates will be represented amongst the 75 other schools and hundreds of students at this year’s protest.

Yet, in many ways, this action is a serious aberration from the Carleton activist norm. For being a thoughtful, informed, and overtly liberal population with over a dozen activists groups, our campus typically lacks public “action.” Sam Neubauer, a freshmen member of SOPE, CORAL, and the Climate Justice Coalition (CJC) is a central organizer of the Keystone protest and has also noticed “a lack of political action on campus.” After a term and a half in the Carleton activist community, he’s found that “Carleton is very cerebral… we look at the full story and do the complete picture research and that’s great and really important … but there comes a point where we have to just say ‘I know enough, its time to start doing some actions.’”

This is not to say that Carleton students are not politically engaged; rather, they are not as politically active. Comparing Carleton to our fellow Minnesotan liberal arts school, Macalester, we find a stark difference in the amount of public action. Petition and pamphlets are a part of every day life, and large student demonstrations and sit-ins are common.

I spoke with Karen Weldon, a senior and activist at Macalester, who said the vibrant and vocal activist community “comes from being in the city.” For instance she noted that during Occupy Wall street, “people were going down to the cities and being involved in demonstrations. Plus there’s always tabling and petitioning here, as well as a strong MPIRG (Minnesota Public Interest Research Group) and Environment Minnesota representation. A lot of students are involved, and you don’t go many days without being handed a leaflet.”

Robbie Emmet, an activist for many groups and leader of Food Truth, proposed another explanation for the shortage of student strikes. “I think the trimester system has a lot to do with it.  If you don’t have plans together before third week nothing meaningful is going to happen in the trimester.”

Indeed, Carleton students are incredible busy, and meaningful political action takes serious time and planning.  Robbie finds, “the school as a whole has a lot of people who go into [activism] without necessarily seeking out prior knowledge on how to do it properly … so you see a lot of poorly worded messages,” and a general scarcity of public action. This can cause apathy towards activism outside one’s interests.

Even Karen echoed this notion, saying that Macalester students “have so much else going on, unless they are involved in something or are supporting their friends, there is not enough time in the day” for mass student support.

From personal experience leading Food Truth, I have seen definite resistance to student mobilization. Last year, Food Truth led a campaign working with administrators to implement aspects of a Real Food Challenge (RFC) commitment to increasing the percentage of local, humane, and sustainable food in the dining hall. While we did get over 400 signatures on a petition and written support from dozens of other student groups, community members, and alums, there was a notable lack of public mobilization, the commitment was never signed, and no one really knew or cared.

Furthermore, there was significant opposition to our campaign in the past when we tried to mobilize students without administrators “permission,” and the president said he feels other schools are being “bullied” into signing similar RFC commitments. Food Truth members have been hesitant to take simple actions, like putting awareness posters in bathroom stalls, for fear of hurting our relationship with administration.

I think this atmosphere is another contributing factor to the lack of true student agitation on campus. No one wants to get anyone upset, and we’ve been conditioned to lower our student voice to a whisper. I don’t think we should accept this. I am not advocating that we get rude or unreasonable, but I do think we have a right to speak up.

In the case of the RFC commitment, we are the people paying for and eating this food every day and we deserve a say in our campus food system. It is the president who is bullying us by making us feel like we should ask for any less.

Yet, there is also the question of whether or not agitation is the answer. There are many ways to make changes, and Carleton student activists are finding them. For instance, Sam noted that “civil disobedience is a component of the Keystone action but it is not the point of the action. We are doing what we think is most effective to get our message out there.”

Thus, perhaps protests like these are simply not needed in most Carleton campaigns. Carleton activism is largely project based, and a lot of these changes can be made behind the scenes, working with administration, and building coalitions. SOPE, for instance, has successfully worked to remove disposable cups from the dining hall and is working to change Carleton’s pool filtration system, and as Sam put it, “this is not stuff where you sit in Stevie P’s office so they change that.”

In any case, as Margaret Mead said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” Just because we do not see a large percent of the student body engaged in public action does not mean that Carleton is different from the rest of the world. The outwardly politically active have always been a small sect of the population. And in any case, if the Keystone XL action is a litmus test of college “activist health,” Carleton is actually faring better than Macalester, as we are sending 10 students and they will send 6.  

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *